Comics Features

Rule Britannia: Superheroes of the UK

Written by Mark Russell

In this day and age, if an average Joe was asked to name superheroes, they would likely be able to cover Superman, Batman and Spider-Man. They are all American heroes and the most iconic and recognized of arguably the whole bunch. Indeed, just about every major superhero created comes from America, which also happens to have the most successful comic book industry, though Japan is up there too. The United Kingdom, however, also has had a pretty decent legacy releasing successful comic books like The Beano, The Dandy, Viz, 2000 AD, and Fleetway’s Sonic the Comic. And among the comics are British superheroes, who don’t get much time in the spotlight compared to others.

I am British and via a screenwriting university course which involved learning the history of British comics, I came to know some of my country’s superheroes. I would like to introduce some of these heroes to readers in this article. I’ll also include some American-created British heroes too to balance things out.

If any comic book fans know of British superheroes, the first they may know of is Captain Britain. It is debatable whether or not the character is from Britain, but since one of his creators Chris Clemont is a British-born American, and the character first appeared in Marvel UK comics, I think it counts. Anyway, Captain Britain was introduced in 1976 and gained popularity. His alter ego is Brian Braddock, whose parents died in a freak accident (later revealed to be caused by an evil supercomputer named Mastermind). After getting in a bike accident, Brian was transformed into Captain Britain by the sorcerer Merlyn and his daughter Roma using the magic Amulet of Right. Captain Britain is essentially the British equivalent of Captain America, defending the country from evil.

Captain Britain has had a good run, teaming up with both Spider-Man and the Black Knight in his early years. After the character’s solo series was cancelled, the writers launched Excalibur in 1988, featuring Captain Britain forming a superhero group with Nightcrawler, Shadowcat, Phoenix III and Widget called Excalibur following the apparent deaths of the X-Men, the team coming and going over the years. Captain Britain’s career continued, battling numerous villains of British myths, snuck into the Hellfire Club to take it down from the inside, he became ruler of another dimension called Otherworld, joined a British secret agency called MI-13, and then the Avengers, founding a school working alongside other British superheroes.

Another popular character is Marvel’s Union Jack, who has had three different incarnations. The first was a war veteran named James Falsworth, who formed the Invaders to fight Baron Blood. Fighting alongside Falsworth was his own daughter Jacqueline who became Spitfire after gaining super speed through encounters with Baron Blood and the original Human Torch. He was confined to a wheelchair by Baron Blood so he gave the title to his son Brian. Brian gained superpowers and became a Nazi killer named the Destroyer, but held the Union Jack title until his death in a car crash.

The current version of the character is Joseph Chapman, who became Union Jack to save James, who was being targeted by Baron Blood again. He formed a rivalry with Captain Britain,  joined the current version of the Invaders alongside the original Human Torch and became Spitfire’s boyfriend.

In the DC Comics corner, there was Knight, or Percy Sheldrake, who was pretty much a British tread-by-tread version of Batman. He based his costume after Batman’s with a more knight motif, operated from a castle, used a church bell to be summoned, and had a sidekick named Squire, played by his son Cyril. Percy eventually got killed by his enemy Spring Heeled Jack, so Cyril became Knight. Cyril didn’t fair well either, becoming a gambling alcoholic and lost his castle home, and ended up rebuilding his career from the garage of a young girl named Beryl, who he took on to be his incarnation of Squire.

Another of Britain’s greatest comics is 2000 AD, a weekly sci-fi anthology comic. Out of the characters introduced for the comic was perhaps the most iconic policeman in fiction: Judge Dredd. First appearing in 2000 AD’s second issue in 1977, Judge Dredd is an American police officer who is part of the Street Judges, operating in Mega City One. He upholds the law and justice above all else, but has openly called out certain parts of the law in order to make them fairer. He never takes off his helmet, which one of his co-creators John Wagner described as a summation of the facelessness of justice.

Dredd is extremely popular as a character and a series, and one of the most recognised comic book characters to come from Britain’s comic industry. The series has had two different movies, the laughable 1995 film starring Sylvester Stallone, and the pretty awesome 2012 film Dredd, starring Karl Urban.

Now, of course I can’t have an article about British superheroes and not feature Alan Moore, one of the industry’s greatest writers and a master of graphic novels. In his career, he has written The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, V For Vendetta, Watchmen, and Batman’s infamous The Killing Joke. He also has written for Captain Britain and 2000 AD. His most iconic character, however, is arguably V from V For Vendetta, an anarchistic man dressed like Guy Fawkes wanting to bring down the dictatorial government of a dystopian Britain to give the public the idea of ruling themselves. He is a violent, unpredictable character with a likeable, theatrical flair to him, but he can’t be classified as a purely good individual, since he follows an anarchistic philosophy of a free society. Hugo Weaving plays V in the film adaptation of the graphic novel, which did alter the anarchist themes of the story to more mainstream ones, something which bothered Alan Moore.

Moore’s other greatest characters are the cast of Watchmen. Each of the six protagonists were based on or inspired by other superheroes. Rorschach is a mentally disturbed vigilante wearing a unique mask, based on Steve Ditko’s The Question; the violent, cynical nihilist Comedian was based on Charlton Comics’ Peacemaker; super-powered Dr. Manhattan, who was based on Captain Atom with a touch of Mr. Spock; Nite Owl was based on the Blue Beetle with some traits reminiscent of both Batman and Superman; Ozymandias is similar to other super geniuses and was inspired by Peter Cannon/Thunderbolt; and Silk Spectre was inspired by Black Canary and Phantom Lady.

The main theme of Watchmen is to examine superheroes in a credible reality, how the power of the superman appears in society, and the deconstruction of heroes. The graphic novel is particularly popular and Moore’s most famous work. It earned a film in 2009, directed by Zack Snyder, and in my opinion, is pretty good, achieving the belief that Watchmen could never be turned into a film.

In conclusion, the British have a pretty awesome comic book industry and have created or contributed to some fantastic, memorable superheroes and other characters. There are a few more superheroes I could mention, some which come from film and television, so here are a couple of honorable mentions:

Miracleman/Marvelman (a British substitute for Captain Marvel who is a journalist turned superhero, which Mick Anglo, Moore, and Neil Gaiman have all written about); The Boys (written by Northern Irish writer Garth Ennis about a team of dysfunctional heroes living in a world where superheroes are self-centered jerks and one character looks like Simon Pegg); Bananaman (a parody character about a school boy who becomes an adult superhero by eating bananas); Super Ted (a Welsh-created character, a teddy bear who is given superpowers to fight evil); and Ace Lightning (the titular character of a British kid’s show about superhero-based video game characters coming to life). I may do an article on the last one.

Do you enjoy British superheroes and do they stand out from American ones? Which is your favourite British superhero and have I left any out? Sound off in the comments below or give views via Facebook or Twitter.

About the author

Mark Russell